The worst offenders of the dreaded “exposition dump” are supposedly the James Bond movies. (In the Austin Powers spoofs, for example, Bond’s boss, M, is replaced by a character named Basil Exposition.) And indeed, in some of the more lazily plotted Bond movies, like Tomorrow Never Dies, the first we see of Bond is when he saunters into M’s office for a new assignment and gets smothered in facts while he listens blandly, even though the audience has no reason to care at this point.
Distaste for this sort of thing has led some writers to try to do away with exposition entirely. Certainly, when I was a kid, we would fast-forward through all talking scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark on VHS. Problem solved, right? But no, that doesn’t work, either: We had no idea what was going on!
The modern equivalent of my nine-year-old mind-set can be found in the later Harry Potter movies, where they left all the boring “story” parts out. If you want to know what’s going on, I sure hope you’ve read the books. Actually, I hope you’ve read them three times, because I’ve read them twice and still couldn’t keep track of the characters onscreen or what’s significant about each plot turn. It is like watching a three-hour trailer for an even longer movie: “Here’s a bunch of creepy-looking suspense scenes! Don’t they make you wish you knew what was going on?”
These movies prove there is such a thing as too little exposition. You can’t just cut the entire story out. As we’ve already established, the audience can’t care about the story until they care about the hero, but once they are invested in the hero’s problem, then they’re going to want to know everything the hero wants to know. Once we’re firmly perched on the hero’s shoulder, the audience will want, nay demand, to figure out everything at the same time.
This brings us back to a point that keeps popping up: A scene is not about something happening; it’s about a character’s attitude toward something happening. That’s even more true for exposition. Audiences hate to listen to exposition if the hero isn’t having an emotional reaction to the news, but, as with everything else, they will feel something if the hero feels something. When it comes to exposition, upsetting news is the best news.
If you look back at some of those James Bond movies, you might notice a few do a better job than others with all the dreaded exposition. In the best of the recent ones, like Goldeneye or Casino Royale, we first meet Bond on a mission, operating with little information, and it’s only when things get bollixed up that he storms into M’s office demanding to know the whole dirty story.
That makes the exposition a lot more interesting. Don’t give the hero or the audience any information they aren’t demanding to know.
Every scene should reverse an expectation, and exposition scenes are not exempt. If you need a scene in which the hero hears a five-minute speech revealing the nuts and bolts of his grandfather’s corrupt business empire, then take some time first to roll that rock uphill before you release it. Let the hero brag in a previous scene about how proud he is to know our country was built by great philanthropists like his grandfather. Now when he hears the ugly truth, the audience will identify with the turmoil it causes within him as each painful word lands.
Here’s another part of withholding exposition: A major character’s backstory shouldn’t be revealed in the same scene as that character’s first appearance.
As we’ve already established, you shouldn’t reveal a backstory unless it’s ironic, and irony is defined as any meaningful gap between expectation and outcome. Without that gap, there’s no meaning. You must first establish one aspect, then ironically reverse it once the audience has had some time to accept the original notion.
This gap can go either way: A character’s ironic backstory can be revealed at least one scene before she appears, or at least one scene later. If the latter, it should ideally be revealed one or more scenes after someone asks about it to no avail. Audiences don’t care about backstory unless they’ve been specifically denied it. Then they’ll crave it.
Let’s compare these three situations:
- The all-at-one-time version: A guy shows up to volunteer and says, “Hi. I used to be a member of a gang, but now I’m trying to go straight, and I’m here to help.”
- The backstory-first version: At the volunteer center, community organizers hear a gang member who hassled them in the past is looking for them, and they’re told to be on the lookout, but then he shows up and claims he wants to help.
- The backstory-a-few-scenes-later version: Our point-of-view character sees a volunteer show up, “I’m here to help.” The boss snorts and replies, “Sure you are. We don’t need any trouble here,” and the volunteer slinks away. Our point-of-view character asks, “What was that about?” “Nothing.” Only later does the point-of-view character decide he really needs the extra help, leading him to ask around and find out about the volunteer’s violent past.
Audiences instinctively hate when a character is introduced along with an info packet. Trying to do it at the same time is like saying, “Here’s who this person is, but wait he’s actually much more interesting than he seems if you’ll just let me explain!” Nobody wants to hear that. As with everything else, if the character cares, then the audience will care.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Info about Trish comes out slowly, for instance.
YES. We get only scant details of the situation: who these guys are, what they’re doing, who they work for, what industry they’re in, what the alien is, where it came from, what was the deal on that planet, etc., and we don’t mind at all.
YES. They know everything but it takes us a while to catch on.
YES. why Bart is in the west, why the quicksand is important to the story, etc.
YES. Jeffrey jumps in with very little information.
The Bourne Identity
NO. we often find it out before the hero does, and then see the hero figure it out later, which creates repeated beats and makes the middle twenty minutes sag a bit.
YES. The story of the bakery comes out slowly.
YES. They don’t even reveal Rick until we’re eager to meet him, and they tease that long flashback for a long time before they deliver it.
YES. Exposition is doled out very slowly and carefully, with no info-dumps.
YES. Information about the mafia set-up and Joe’s mission comes out slowly.
Do the Right Thing
YES. There is almost no exposition, but what little there is (such as why they have their pizzeria here) comes out gradually and naturally.
YES. There’s no exposition.
YES. it’s expertly parceled out, particularly our growing awareness of the magnitude of Dicky’s (and therefore Micky’s) problem.
NO. it’s all dumped on us at the beginning, but they do a great job with it, interweaving it with a song.
YES. Well, we begin with a massive info-dump, but the intercutting is so well done that it feels fine. After that the exposition is dribbled out and well done. Even with Kimble’s flashbacks, we only get the flashbacks as we need to get them (we don’t see the one-armed man until we need that part.)
YES. Curse is never explained. We don’t find out her history until he needs to know it to seduce her. We never find out his at all.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. There’s a voiceover info-dump at the beginning to introduce the bizarre world, but it describes each aspect as it plays its part in a big battle, piquing our interest about each one as it’s explained. From that point, the additional exposition dribbles out.
In a Lonely Place
YES. we don’t find out anything about his past until his present is compelling.
YES. We’ve gotten to like him and then seen him suffer before we find out who he is, so now we care enough to find out.
NA: Not much plot, not much exposition. They never explain why she has a hispanic brother.
Nope, we begin with a massive ten-minute info-dump.
NO. it’s awkwardly dumped on us in the first scene.
YES. The recent history of the movement is not delivered until SCLC and SNCC are fighting about it.
Not really, we get a pretty big info-dump about the past right up front.
YES. Info about the marriage and the women leaks out slowly.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Very much so.
YES. We start out with a massive onscreen info dump, but the exposition is parceled out deftly from that point on. Breaking up the video playback into two sections is a nice trick.
Somewhat, we get a few big info-dumps, but Max’s story drips out nicely.